Johnny Lytle - Blue Vibes

Johnny Lytle Blue Vibes (Jazzland 1960)

Blue Vibes propelled the career of the superb vibraphonist Johnny Lytle.

Johnny Lytle - Blue Vibes

Personnel

Johnny Lytle (vibraphone), Milton Harris (organ), Albert Heath (drums)

Recorded

on June 16, 1960 in New York City

Released

JLP 22 in 1960

Track listing

Side A:
Blue Vibes
Over The Rainbow
For Heaven’s Sake
Movin’ Nicely
Side B:
Autumn Leaves
Mister Trundel
Canadian Sunset


Mount Rushmore of vibraphonists? That would be Lionel Hampton, Milt Jackson, Dave Pike and Bobby Hutcherson. Agree? No, I hear you say, better start grinding an extra stone for Gary Burton. There were/are a lot of great vibe players. Red Norvo (who started out on xylophone), Teddy Charles, Terry Gibbs, Buddy Montgomery, Mike Mainieri, Steve Nelson and, in The Netherlands, Frits Landesbergen. The name of Johnny Lytle now and then still crops up, deservedly so. The Springfield, Ohio-born vibraphonist, (1925-1995) like Hampton and Landesbergen also an acclaimed drummer, was a reasonably popular artist on the rosters of the Riverside, Tuba and Solid State labels in the sixties, scoring especially well with The Village Caller (1963) and The Loop (1965).

He was a professional boxer as well, battling well into the late fifties when Lytle was active as a drummer for Ray Charles, Jimmy Witherspoon and Gene Ammons. Nicknamed “Fast Hands” for his showmanship and remarkable agility, Lytle started recording steadily in 1960. It adds up. Good pugilists have a delicate sense of rhythm. And their fight is a dance, needs to swing and groove. The drums and the vibraphone share the percussive aspect, while melodic swing is paramount. Miles Davis was attracted to boxing for a number of reasons. No fights in the ring for Miles though, contrary to Jack Johnson, Red Garland, Johnny Lytle. One of Lytle’s tunes on his 1966 New And Groovy album is titled Selim. Miles spelled backwards, obviously. Lytle liked boxing and Miles Davis. Makes sense. I’m more into snooker and Miles Davis, which may seem nerdy, but that’s just what the Good Lord cued up for yours truly the Flophouse Floor Manager.

His debut album Blue Vibes, which includes Milton Harris on organ and Albert “Tootie” Heath on drums, finds Lytle in straight-ahead jazz territory, less ‘soul jazzy’ than his mid-sixties efforts, and it’s a winner. Lytle offers a couple of proper ballad interpretations, Over The Rainbow and For Heaven’s Sake. The array of sounds that Lytle coaxes from the vibraphone, from dry, staccato notes, sustained bell-like sirens to eerie pre-sixties-soundtrack-ish phrases is surprising. How Lytle does it I don’t know! But the variation is effective and striking, like the unpredictable steps of Muhammad Ali. Standards like Autumn Leaves and Canadian Sunset are infested with healthy doses of groove and blues. In fact, the blues-based repertory of the Lytle compositions Blue Vibes and Mister Trundel and Milt Jackson’s Movin’ Nicely is what makes one eager to purchase this Jazzland vinyl. Or, if a quick buy is out of the question, run to the Spotify link below. The former‘s the best option. The latter, connected with Bluetooth to the speakers, might give one unsound bytes and blue vibes.

No doubt there’s something about the combination of vibes, organ and drums. Harris knows when to scream, add slices of melodrama or back off into a corner. “Tootie” Heath adds a number of crazy rolls. The trio grooves thoroughly. It’s the balance between the fire of r&b and jazz sophistication that makes Blue Vibes such an enjoyable date.

The Junior Cook Quintet - Junior's Cookin'

The Junior Cook Quintet Junior’s Cookin’ (Jazzland 1962)

Junior’s Cookin’ is the only album as a leader in the sixties from tenor saxophonist Junior Cook. Superb hard bop date.

The Junior Cook Quintet - Junior's Cookin'

Personnel

Junior Cook (tenor saxophone), Blue Mitchell (trumpet), Dolo Coker (piano), Gene Taylor (bass), Roy Brooks (drums)

Recorded

on April 10 & December 4, 1961 at Gold Star Studios, Long Beach, California and New York City

Released

as JLP 58 in 1962

Track listing

Side A:
Myzar
Turbo Village
Easy Living
Side B:
Blue Farouq
Sweet Cakes
Field Day
Pleasure Bent


How many references to cookin’ can you handle? Following his debut as a leader, Junior’s Cookin’ from 1962, the 70s and 80s saw the release of Pressure Cooker, Good Cookin’ and Something’s Cookin’. Of course, there’s a close relationship between jazz and food, depending on how far you want to take it. If you don’t mind me traveling a couple miles from home base, I won’t hesitate to state that more often than not, you can just smell jambalaya, kidney stew or ribs in the juicy notes of Louis Armstrong, Brother Jack McDuff, Lee Morgan, to name a few… I’m pretty sure this can’t be applied to classical music, which as a principle is non-spontaneous. (Though it once was common practice, as brilliant composers and pianists like Franz Liszt reportedly did, to partly improvise) But perhaps you disagree and feel very strongly the taste of Sachertorte in the waltzes of Johann “Fledermaus” Strauss.

What’s cookin’? Well, the group of Junior Cook, sous chef of the Horace Silver Gourmet Restaurant. (Just one last cheesy culinary reference to end all matters) Junior Cook, born in Pensacola, Florida in 1934, deceased in NYC in 1992, came into prominence with the hard bop pioneer’s group, blending particularly well in the ensembles with Blue Mitchell, who’s his superb and lively mate on this album as well. As a matter of fact, also present on Junior’s Cookin’ are bassist Gene Taylor and drummer Roy Brooks, who were part of the Silver line-up including Cook and Mitchell as well, a group that existed from 1958 to 1964 and is by many regarded as the essential Silver band. After his stint with Silver, Cook was in Mitchell’s band from 1964 to 1969. He also played in trumpeter Freddie Hubbard’s group from 1971 to 1974. Notable albums on which Cook is featured are Horace Silver classics as Finger Poppin’, The Tokyo Blues and Doin’ The Thing, Kenny Burrell’s Blue Lights Volume 1 & 2, Barry Harris’ Luminiscence and Cedar Walton’s Cedar.

With this line-up involved, effortless swing and crisp group interplay are guaranteed. Myzar, one of four Cook original compositions, is a splendid example of Cook and his group’s hi-quality hard bop. An Eastern-tinged brass and reed melody underscored by a repetitive Senor Blues-type piano figure, which moves smoothly forth and back to the crisp, straightforward swing section. Cook’s cookin’, yes. Not to be mistaken with cookin’ in the sense of riffin’, stringing together exciting but loose-jointed blues phrases. Far from it. Albeit graced with an abundance of blues feeling, Cook’s playing is remarkably balanced. Taste written all over it. A heir to Hank Mobley, in this respect. Also a Silver alumnus, from the pioneering line-up of The Messengers of late ’54 and early ’55 to late ‘56, to be precise. His mates in the frontline were Kenny Dorham and Donald Byrd. Mr. Silver had an ear for exquisite and smokin’ tenorists and trumpeters.

It’s interesting to take a listen to Cook’s late career period. It could be argued that it is evidence of the man’s patient, dedicated, disciplined intensification of his hard bop tenor art. Take a listen to the Cook/Louis Hayes LP Ichi Ban, Louis Smith’s Prancin’, Bill Hardman’s What’s Up or Clifford Jordan’s Two Tenor Winner. To be sure, I do not intend to assume that Cook’s work with Silver was immature. On the contrary! However, would it be a farfetched line of thinking that Cook was balancing his act with Silver, not really a driving force of that group but instead precisely tying the knots of Silver’s intricate, blues and gospel-infested compositions? Later in life, evidently, Cook’s work gained depth and, though still very composed, is characterized by more edgy twists and turns and a delivery that hints at a heart that has been burning from all sorts of sweet or sour experiences.

I don’t think Cook is alone in this. Plenty of saxophonists that shone brightly in the classic age of hard bop but matured further into their careers. Like Clifford Jordan, Charles McPherson, Jimmy Heath, Harold Land… Wisdom comes with age. Wrinkles too, although, and perhaps you know that feeling, they’re the least of my troubles.

Frank Strozier Quartet - March Of The Siamese Children

Frank Strozier Quartet March Of The Siamese Children (Jazzland 1962)

Frank Strozier’s March Of The Siamese Children makes abundantly clear that the overlooked alto saxophonist and flute player was an advanced hard bop force to reckon with.

Frank Strozier Quartet - March Of The Siamese Children

Personnel

Frank Strozier (alto sax A2-4, B1, B3, B4, flute A1, B2), Harold Mabern (piano), Bill Lee (bass), Al Dreares (drums)

Recorded

on March 28, 1962 at Plaza Sound Studios, NYC

Released

as JLP 70 in 1962

Track listing

Side A:
March Of The Siamese Children
Extension 27
Something I Dreamed Last Night
Don’t Follow The Crowd
Side B:
Our Waltz
Will I Forget?
Lap
Hey, Lee!


Considering the wealth of great saxophonists in the sixties, evidently Frank Strozier found a way to stand out. Strozier, now 80 and inactive for decades, has worked towards a hard bop style with alluring, adventurous touches, delivered with an irresistible combination of fury and sweetness. Born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1937, Strozier was teenage buddy with Phineas Newborn Jr., Booker Little, Harold Mabern and George Coleman. His career was off to a promising start. Relocated to the Chicago in the late fifties, Strozier struck up a fruitful cooperation with MJT, the group of drummer Walter Perkins, resulting in a number of albums on the VeeJay label, notably MJT + 3 in 1959. Strozier also played on The Young Lions, the 1960 VeeJay session of rising stars Lee Morgan and Wayne Shorter. As if that wasn’t enough, Strozier’s first album as a leader that same year, The Fantastic Frank Strozier, also on VeeJay, included Booker Little and the rhythm section of Miles Davis’ epic Kind Of Blue, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb.

His subsequent years in New York City in the early 60s and on the West Coast for the rest of the decade kept Strozier in high demand. He played briefly in the Miles Davis Quintet in 1963, between the tenures of Hank Mobley and George Coleman. In Los Angeles, Strozier had extensive stints in the bands of drummer Shelly Manne and trumpeter Don Ellis. Strozier recorded sporadically in the seventies, when an alledged disappointment with the music business caused Strozier to quit playing altogether. Other notable albums and features are Long Night (Jazzland, 1962), What’s Goin’ On (Steeplechase, 1977), Booker Ervin’s Exulation! (Prestige, 1963), Roy Haynes’ Cymbalism (New Jazz, 1963), McCoy Tyner’s Today And Tomorrow (Impulse, 1964), Chet Baker’s Baby Breeze (Limelight, 1965), Shelly Manne’s Boss Sounds (Atlantic, 1966), Oliver Nelson’s Live From L.A. (Impulse, 1967), Sonny Stitt’s Dumpy Mama and Woody Shaw’s Little Red Fantasy (Muse, 1976). A review of Strozier’s Cool And Cloudy and an insightful appraisal of his jazz personality can be found on Steven Cerra’s excellent Jazz Profiles blog here.

The urgent, lean alto of Strozier is featured on four tunes: the free-flowing Strozier composition Extension 27, Harold Mabern’s Hey, Lee!, Bill Lee’s Lap, a nifty blues melody consisting of the archetypical 12 bars, which are, to be sure, far from a straightjacket for Strozier, a storyteller revealing abundant quizzical, masterful sounds of surprise. Last but not least, Strozier takes to heart the title of the album’s ballad, Don’t Follow The Crowd, his alto ripping hypnotically through the classy take, much like the great Jackie McLean, with a tone that’s less acerbic, but still a bit edgy. Strozier likes to gamble and isn’t afraid of emotions, switches naturally from soft-hued, soothing phrases to dramatic, rousing sentences. Besides, he’s got the blues. A combination of assets that lifts the Fain, Magidson and Yellen ballad to a higher plain.

Strozier is excellent on flute as well. March Of The Siamese Children stands out, his flute weaving sprightly and authoritatively through the pretty melody and the appealing interplay of exotic and straightforward rhythm. The beautiful composition was written by the legendary team of music theatre writers Rodgers and Hammerstein II for the musical The King And I in 1951. It was revived for the movie version in 1956 starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr. See here and compare it with Strozier’s version, the opening tune of the album. A great example of the jazz musician’s ability to re-envision material in accordance with his own feelings and ideas and the importance of the show tune writers as suppliers of intelligent blueprints for jazz improvisation.

Strozier’s March Of The Siamese Children is simultaneously mellow and probing. Intriguing, like Strozier himself, a distinct personality deserving much more attention than he has until now received.